Older people residing in and frequenting Bantry, Castletownbere, Clonakilty, Dunamanway and Skibbereen Day Care Centres; Skibbereen, Clonakilty and Castletownbere Community Hospitals; and the healthcare professionals, families and communities linked to the centres.
Starling Song is part of the Arts for Health partnership programme which aims to be stimulating, enjoyable and culturally relevant for older people frequenting day care centres and residing in community hospitals in West Cork.
This particular project aims to connect the participants and artists with a sense of locality and to share experiences and skills in a light-hearted and celebratory way.
The objective of The Starling Song Project is to compose a collection of original songs and record them as part of a compilation to connect the participants in each location.
The first phase of The Starling Song Project took place in 2012 led by Liz Clark, an experienced song-writer and musician, with the participation of Tess Leak, a visual artist with a significant interest in found text. The artists collaborated with each group of older people over a four-week period to compose and record an original song. Working conceptually together, the artists discussed stories and experiences connected to the locality with participants. These exchanges stimulated ideas and influenced the development of melodies and lyrics to create a collection of original songs.
During the pilot phase, the first sessions began with a predetermined theme to stimulate discussion; for example, working lives, local culture/dances, community, emigration. These themes encouraged conversation and the brainstorming of ideas. Provocative questions encouraged contemplation and an emotional response as opposed to a factual one. Melodies were explored and agreed amongst the group and the outcomes translated into song format by the artist/s. By the third session, participants were reflecting on their lyrics and the artists were fine-tuning the format until the group was content with their creation and felt that it truly reflected their ideas. The final version of the song was learnt by the participants who sang their creation as a group.
‘We wanted everyone to connect and have a sense of pride in accomplishing a musical piece. Also we wanted participants to feel easy about sharing their stories, knowing that they will work into a format that we can all sing together’, said artist Liz Clark.
The final session combined the recording of the finished song with a celebration of the project and each group was presented with a framed copy of the finished lyrics.
All sessions concluded with a sharing of songs drawn from the artists and the participants’ repertoire of folk songs. The music could be heard along the corridors of the venues and this made for a lively, enjoyable environment.
2013 presents an opportunity for developing the project both creatively and practically with five new groups, two repeat groups and the addition of hospital settings. The new theme ‘Where in the world is the most beautiful place?’ is inspired by a poem written with participants in Castletownbere Hospital as part of the Arts for Health partnership programme. For implementation in the hospitals, Tess and Liz have developed a different method of song-building from bed to bed which will take place over eight weeks. The artists will collect different responses to a common theme, with one conversation travelling throughout the hospital. The artists will then work the ideas through together before travelling the song-in-progress from participant to participant the following week.
A five-song audio CD called The Threshing Machine Made A Devilous Sound was produced during the first phase, which included studio and on-site recordings of the songs. The CD is presented in a professionally packaged jewel case with artwork and information about the project. Participants each received a copy and the remainder are on sale, with proceeds going towards the AfH partnership programme.
The artists performed the songs at several different celebratory events, including National Music Day Ireland’s love:live music celebration on Friday 21 June 2012 at Skibbereen Community Hospital which was attended by families and the wider community.
Liz and Tess are currently planning to perform the Starling Songs (with invited musicians) and the ‘Where in the World’ poems at the 2013 Bealtaine festival, both in the Arts for Health care settings and at the West Cork Bealtaine Tea Dance.
An important part of the collaboration between the artists during the pilot phase was the post-session conversations, during which the artists explored the possibilities and challenges of the project.
Liz Clark kept a private online blog of her experiences throughout the first phase. The names of participants and locations were kept anonymous. Liz included personal reflections, observations, aspects of the project she thought worked well and aspects she felt could be enhanced. This blog has now been made public and can be viewed here: http://starlingsongproject.tumblr.com/
Each month the artists attend an Arts for Health team meeting to share and evaluate their work with their peers.
A number of challenges were presented to the artists during the pilot project; for instance, honouring the importance of factual information about the locality for the participants whilst also creating a song with both meaningful and rhyming lyrics. The need to create a lot of songs in a short period led to the exploration of a poetic style, with Tess creating original poetry with the participants and presenting the lyrics as poems. This approach aided deeper conversations and themes evolved into songs.
‘The combination of songs and poems also allowed for flexibility in terms of creating the kind of “atmosphere” we felt was most suited to a particular moment (e.g. reflective/ evocative/ raucous),’ explains artist Tess Leak.
For the participants too there were a number of challenges to overcome such as low confidence in arts participation. Hesitancy was apparent at the outset.
One healthcare professional stated: ‘Quite often when I discuss an art project proposal with our service users they would tell me that that is “over their heads”, saying “I’m no good at that sort of thing”.’
The fact that Starling Song was part of the larger Arts for Health programme gave the group co-ordinator confidence in trusting the artists and encouraging participants’ involvement. Once involved, a few found sharing memories a little emotional; however, this emotion transpired positively in their song writing.
Testimonials from those involved in the project:
‘You didn’t have to be good at anything to take part.’
‘It was a great way of expressing emotions, achievements and sometimes regrets of the past’
‘Genius, for connecting my words into a song.’
‘It was a project where everyone had a story to tell and that is why it was so inclusive. As the Day Care Co-ordinator I learned a lot about the individuals because we are so caught up in today’s world that we sometimes forget the past.’
‘I am absolutely overwhelmed by the positive feedback … [the project] was very inclusive, clients with memory loss could still participate … Looking forward to more!’- Phil Murphy, Castletownbere Day Care Co-ordinator
‘When this project really works, songs created by participants become part of their folk-song repertoire at the care centres. The new songs are being held with as much importance and esteem as the traditional songs that are part of the fabric of their identity and culture.’
Documentation and Dissemination
The Threshing Machine Made A Devilous Sound CD can be purchased at Castletownbere Day Care Centre (027-70737) or West Cork Arts Centre (028-22090), with proceeds going towards the Arts for Health Partnership Programme.
Two songs from The Threshing Machine Made A Devilous Sound can be downloaded here:
‘Beara in Summertime’ https://soundcloud.com/artsandhealth/starling-song-project-beara-in
Liz Clark’s online blog about the project can be viewed here: http://starlingsongproject.tumblr.com/
Recordings and images were taken throughout the project and archived in the project blog and the AfH wiki which is shared amongst the programme stakeholders. All the artists on the Arts for Health team document and journal their progress on the wiki.
The Arts for Health partnership programme comprises West Cork Arts Centre, Cork County Council, County Cork VEC and the HSE. The HSE is represented through the Cork Arts + Health Programme, the Health Promotion Department, the Nursing Directors of Community Hospitals, and the Day Care Centres and Community Services of West Cork.